Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why we need fiction

Some people claim they don't have time for fiction, for something that's not "true."  Others may prefer news and science and biography to a good novel.  That's fine.  But I need fiction in my life.

I don't know anyone who's said it better than Vida Winter, a character in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.  Vida, a reclusive writer, never answers questions about her own life with anything but a beautifully constructed story.  Here's what she says about truth and fiction:

"I've nothing against people who love truth.  Apart from the fact that they make dull companions.  Just so long as they don't start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do.  Naturally that annoys me.  But provided they leave me alone, I won't hurt them.

"My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself.  What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?  What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney?  When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails?  No.  When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid.  What you need are the plump comforts of a story.  The soothing, rocking safety of a lie."
                                      -From The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I don't agree completely with Vida Winter.  Truth is important, and has its place.  But just as vital to mental health are the "plump comforts of a story."

Within fiction we can love and grieve and feel, all the while knowing it's not really true.  We explore dark crevices of the soul and enjoy triumphs we might never experience in reality.  We can escape from our own boredom or fear or heartbreak, long enough to regain our strength for the real fight.  And hidden in the "soothing, rocking safety of a lie," there awaits a great deal of truth, told in a way that is easier to accept than hard, cold reality.

The best stories are simply truth cloaked in pleasure, be it sword and sorcery or harlequin romance, murder mystery or tough-guy western, literary fiction or space travel.  In their safe, comforting way they reveal our own truths.     

Once I heard a beautiful quote.  I have no idea who said it, though similarly profound words appear in V for Vendetta.  Here's the version I live by:

"Politicians use the truth to tell lies.  Writers use lies to tell the truth." 

Long live the Story!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Czech September

Ahh, the open road. 

Here's what I'm missing by not living in the Czech Republic this September.  
Blues, greens, a cool breeze.  

Photos from the red trail between Dušná and Vsetín.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Grammarians Beware: Dangling Prepositions

I hate stupid rules.

I'm a writer, a linguist, and a teacher of English as a Second Language.  In descriptive linguistics and in teaching ESL, we talk about English as it's spoken, not as it's "supposed" to be spoken, according to grammar textbooks from the 50s.  I'm a stickler for the important rules, but it really bugs me when people get on their high horse about things like how you should never end a sentence with a preposition.    

Sometimes, I agree it's more elegant.  "I want to go" is cleaner than "I want to go with."  This, however, is simply a case of an extra word.  When you have to start doing linguistic gymnastics just to avoid a preposition at the end, that's where I draw the line.  "Where are you from?" is quite preferable to "from where do you come?" 

I think one of the reasons people think it's improper is that in Latin and other Romance languages, it's either impossible or incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition.  We—and especially our 18th and 19th century grammarian predecessors—seem to have this strange idea that Latin is the most wonderful language ever.  But guess what?  English is NOT a Romance language.  It's Germanic.  And Germans dangle their prepositions all over the place.

Another thing about Germanic languages is the prevalence of phrasal verbs, something native speakers rarely hear about because we all instinctively know how to use them and what they mean.  However, they give learners of English nightmares.  Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and one or more prepositions, like break up with, hang out, and get over.  They often have meanings unrelated, or only loosely linked, with their base verbs.  Hanging out with your friends doesn't generally involve any actual hanging.  When a building blows up, it doesn't lift its mouth to the sky and exhale. 

When an intransitive phrasal verb comes at the end of a sentence, there's rarely a good way to avoid that final preposition, and there's absolutely no reason to try.  "The White House blew up!" or "Up blew the White House!"  You tell me which is better.  How about this:  "Let's get this over with."  If there's a way to naturally rephrase that, I can't figure it OUT.

So, if you insist on never dangling your prepositions, start speaking Latin or Spanish, because terminal prepositions in English are something grammarians are just going to have to deal WITH.  Here's a link to a great video on the topic from Merriam-Webster.  Check it OUT.   

Monday, September 5, 2011

"A Great and Terrible Beauty" by Libba Bray

In my research of literary agents, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray came up several times, always in a good light.  Many internet reviews recommend it.  So, because of the build-up, I felt my disappointment quite strongly.  It's the story of Gemma, an English girl raised in India, who goes back to a Victorian boarding school after her mother's mysterious death and the onset of her own strange visions.  There she struggles to find her place and learn about the magic of "The Realms."   

One of my pet peeves in the fantasy genre is unclear, inconsistent, corny, or overly powerful magic.  This had it all.  The many mentions of "The Order" and "The Realms" felt almost spoof-like in their grandeur, especially since I never got a handle on what the Order did or what exactly the Realms were.   Because of this hazy magic, I didn't even really understand what happened in the end, and I didn't care enough to re-read.

I found most of the characters unsympathetic.  I sort of liked Gemma, when she was being spunky, but she was often whiny, and made very dumb decisions.  I really didn't like her friends.  They were by turns shallow or cruel.  They got greedy and betrayed her toward the end, yet that didn't seem to change their strange friendship.  Her lustful dreams and possible romance with Kartik felt tacked-on.  I most liked the one kind teacher, who was dismissed because of the irresponsibility and selfishness of the girls.    

The anachronistic language bothered me.  I don't have a problem with modernizing speech in historical fiction or fantasy, as long as it stays neutral and doesn't get slangy or too modern.  If you try to write it "accurately," it sounds stilted and pushes the reader out of the story.   This balance can be hard to find, but your handsome knight shouldn't call his squire "bro."  Nor should he boast that his steed is faster than a speeding bullet.  Libba Bray didn't go quite that far in A Great and Terrible Beauty, but many phrases and ideas felt too modern.  I believe that was intentional, but it really didn't work or me.

And seriously, who wants to read a book written entirely in present tense?  I've read about three, and hated the gimmick every time.  I admit that Bray does quite a good job of it, and I eventually got so I could ignore it, but…why do it?  What does it add to the story?  And can whatever benefit possibly outweigh the annoyance readers feel?          

I did enjoy some of the social commentary about the inequality and hypocrisy of Victorian (and other) society, and the horror of facing your own future as the meek, speak-only-when-spoken-to property of your husband.  Some of the commentary got pretty heavy-handed, but it was still thought-provoking.

The historical details and interesting settings, along with the always-entertaining boarding school power struggles, satisfied me enough that I kept reading, but it felt a bit like a chore.

My rating:  2+